HARTFORD-After months of political upheaval and investigation into the activities of Gov. John Rowland, it may be the testimony of a Woodbury antiques dealer that provides key information in determining if the General Assembly decides to impeach the governor.
Outside the Abraham Ribicoff Federal Building March 18, three news cameras were trained on the double doors of the courthouse in anticipation of the appearance of Wayne Pratt, the noted and successful Woodbury antiques dealer.
It was a scene that Mr. Pratt has encountered fairly often recently.
Last year, he attracted national media attention when the Federal Bureau of Investigation seized an original copy of the Bill of Rights that he tried to sell and whisked it to North Carolina, which claimed ownership.
The document had been purchased in partnership with Robert V. Matthews, a businessman from Washington, and while Mr. Pratt cooperated with authorities in returning the Bill of Rights, Mr. Matthews is suing Mr. Pratt in an attempt to safeguard his financial interest in the historic document.
This year, Mr. Pratt is back in the spotlight as a link in the chain leading to the possible impeachment of the governor. And the link binding Mr. Pratt to the controversy was forged, the antiques dealer alleges, by Mr. Matthews.
On March 18, Mr. Pratt entered a guilty plea to the misdemeanor charge of submitting a false document to the Internal Revenue Service. The plea was in connection to his purchase of a Washington D.C. condominium owned by the governor-a transaction, Mr. Pratt claims, that was urged on him and surreptitiously paid for by Mr. Matthews.
Mr. Rowland bought the apartment, described by The New York Times as a 278-square-foot unit at 637 Third St. N.E., for around $57,000 when he was a congressman representing Connecticut's Fifth District in the late 1980s. Mr. Rowland was elected governor in 1994.
Mr. Matthews, referred to by Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy during the proceedings as "Associate A," allegedly approached Mr. Pratt in April 1997 about buying the governor's condominium for $68,500.
"Associate A informed [Mr. Pratt] that he [Associate A] should not be listed as the purchaser of the condominium," the allegations presented by the U.S. Attorney's office noted. "The defendant agreed to purchase the condominium, based on the understanding that Associate A would provide the money for the defendant to purchase the condominium and make the defendant whole on the deal such that defendant Wayne E. Pratt would suffer no financial loss as a result of the transaction."
Before the purchase went through, however, Mr. Matthews allegedly contacted the antiques dealer and said "the seller was squeezing him for more money," Ms. Dannehy explained. "The seller wanted an additional $5,000 for the contents of the condominium," although its furnishings were "not worth it," the government alleges.
In May of 1997, Mr. Matthews allegedly provided Mr. Pratt with two checks that they agreed should be "fudged on the books," to make it appear that the purchase of the condominium was the purchase of expensive antiques from Mr. Pratt's business by one of Mr. Matthew's companies-according to documents presented by the prosecutor.
In December 1999, Mr. Pratt sold the condominium for approximately $37,500, the general allegations noted, reporting a loss to the IRS of $24,773. The filing was inaccurate because it failed to state the reimbursement Mr. Pratt received from Mr. Matthews of $21,952, which Mr. Pratt and "Associate A agreed … would flow through the books and records of Wayne E. Pratt, Inc. and be disguised as the purchase of an antique," according to the government documents.
The fraudulent filing amounts to a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum one year in prison, followed by a year of supervised release and fines of up to $100,000. Mr. Pratt was given no assurance by U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Martinez that he would get slapped with anything less than the maximum, but Mr. Pratt is cooperating in the investigation of Mr. Rowland, which is expected to factor in to the sentence issued.
What makes the condominium transaction so significant to FBI investigators researching Mr. Rowland's associations is its potential connection to decisions by the state that directly benefited Mr. Matthews.
In 1997, Fabricated Metal Products Inc., a Matthews-owned company, received a loan guarantee of $3.6 million from the Connecticut Development Authority, a quasi-public state agency. That same year, another entity owned by Mr. Matthews, New Haven Manufacturing, received a $1.1 million loan from the same state agency. In addition, the state has paid millions to Mr. Matthews to rent office space in New Haven.
Subpoenas issued by the House committee studying whether the governor should be impeached have been issued to Mr. Matthews.
Because of the controversy last year surrounding the true ownership of the Bill of Rights, Mr. Pratt was asked to step away from his role on the PBS hit series "Antiques Roadshow."
A few weeks ago, Judy Matthews (no relation to Mr. Matthews), the senor publicist for WGBH in Boston, which produces "Antiques Roadshow," received word from Mr. Pratt that he wouldn't be available for the coming season.
Of their 20-year relationship as business partners and friends, Mr. Pratt's attorney, Tom Dwyer of Dwyer & Collora in Boston, commented last week, "I would say we're at a point where Mr. Pratt no longer desires to be in Mr. Matthew's company."
Mr. Matthews' attorney, Joel Faxon of Stratton Faxon in New Haven, could not be reached for comment.